Everybody experiences a crisis or traumatic event at some point in their life. Life crises can be personal, such as death or the loss of a relationship, or community based, such as a fire on campus.
Some examples of traumatic events include deaths, violent crime, sexual assault or abuse, the aftermath of suicide, threats to public health, domestic violence, or natural disasters. It is also possible to experience trauma indirectly i.e. friends of victims, people who have witnessed a traumatic event and friends, family members of personnel in the health and security fields who work with emergencies including trauma/crisis intervention.
How do people normally respond to trauma?
When you experience or witness an event that is traumatic for you, you may feel a sense of helplessness, fear or sadness, you may just find yourself feeling numb - not being able to describe what you feel.
Sometimes, because of initial shock (a naturally self-protective reaction) you may even feel unaffected by the event and not realise that you're suffering from trauma.
Some of the symptoms can include a sense of detachment from people around you, difficulty in sleeping well, or sleeping more than usual, daydreaming or 'flashbacks' (re-experiencing the event) in dreams, or finding oneself constantly drawn back to thinking about it.
Concentration can be affected, and feelings of fatigue, anxiety, sadness or low mood may arise.
Some of the stress reactions to look out for:
- Physical reactions: Fatigue, insomnia, oversleeping, under activity, headaches, nightmares, hyperactivity, being 'jumpy' or over-reactive, exhaustion, diarrhoea.
- Cognitive reactions: Difficulty with concentration, solving problems, making decisions, memory disturbance, flashbacks, inability to attach importance to anything other than the incident, forgetfulness, self-doubt, hypervigilance.
- Emotional reactions: Fear, guilt, emotional numbing, over-sensitivity, mood changes, anger, irritability, anxiety, depression, violent fantasies, feelings of helplessness, amnesia for the event.
Dealing with it – some practical steps
Even though the symptoms listed are painful and often confusing, they are part of the natural healing process. However, there are some strategies to help promote a healthy recovery:
- One of the first steps is to realise that you have been exposed to a traumatic event and it would be unusual if it did not affect you in some way.
- Remind yourself that there is no right or wrong way to feel in response to such an incident occurring, your reaction is valid, no matter what it is or how powerful or confusing the feeling is.
- Try to be accepting of your own feelings and also the feelings of others - different people react in very different ways to coping with crisis.
- Be realistic about what your limitations were at the time of hearing about or experiencing the incident. It is common for people to feel that they should have acted differently or done something to lessen the impact of whatever happened.
- Learning that in traumatic situations, people react in the best way that they can based on their ability at that exact moment in time.
Some suggestions for coping:
- Maintain your usual schedule as much as you can.
- Try to talk about your feelings.
- Exercise strenuously followed by relaxation periods - this should help alleviate some of the physical reactions.
- Remind yourself that you're normal and having a normal reaction to a non-normal or unusual event - don't label yourself as 'crazy'.
- Give yourself permission to: 1) feel overwhelmed 2) feel low, and 3) express your feelings.
- Do things that feel good to you.
- Don't make big life-changing decisions for several months.
- Maintain good eating habits.
- Do make as many daily decisions as possible, giving you a feeling of being more in control of your life.
- Avoid trying to numb the pain with alcohol or drugs.
- Consider making an appointment for talking therapy or with your GP if your symptoms persist.
How to support a friend/colleague post trauma
- Make specific times to talk, encourage the person to express their feelings, and listen.
- Respect the person's need to spend some time alone.
- Help with everyday tasks.
- Don't try to 'cheer them up'. If they feel better for talking with you, fine, just don't try to make them feel better until they're ready to.
- Encourage them to contact other support services if appropriate.
- Contrary to popular belief, talking therapy is not always indicated as the best intervention too near to the time of the event/trauma. Evidence shows that it can be most effective after the initial shock has passed.
- It is even more important than usual to take care of your own needs and know your limits.